Lessons on Improvisation from Paul Newman (1925 – 2008)

A sign famously hangs in Paul Newman’s Westport, Conn., office that reads, “If I had a plan I would be screwed.” Newman, who died of cancer this year at age 83, firmly believed in the benefit of “creative chaos,” welcoming the opinions of others whether in business or on the movie set.

Newman understood and appreciated that success in today’s age depends on how good we are at improvising rather than merely sticking to a script or plan. The concept of improvisation, while rooted in the arts and music, has widespread application to all disciplines including the legal and ADR field. At its heart, improvisation is a tool that can facilitate greater communication, learning and transformation, which are in and of themselves, the cornerstones of innovation and growth.

At the negotiating table, improvisation demands that parties deal with the reality they are presented in real-time rather than continually revisiting scenarios of what they believe could or should be. By limiting oneself to a scripted plan, options for solving problems are narrowed and opportunities for solutions are more likely to be missed, leading to a failed negotiation. Improvising instead of following a script or a plan, allows one the flexibility to stay nimble, operate more freely and authentically, and invite the participation and entrepreneurship that are essential to success as Newman aptly identified.

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